Who’s going to buy religious books in the seventies? During the sixties religious books rolled off the presses in record numbers, but a jittery feeling about the future is robbing publishers of most of their satisfaction over past successes. And their concern is well founded.
Already some religious houses have been dissolved; others have been forced into mergers or have found it necessary to diversify in the direction of non-religious publications. Trade publishers are finding the religious market increasingly less fruitful.
Why the apparent decline of interest in religious books? There are many possible explanations, and any attempt to provide one is pretty well confined to the realm of speculation. But certainly, part of the answer is to be found in the current revolutionary changes in the world of religion. Problems in the book trade are but symptoms of problems in the Church. Three developments are especially worthy of note.
Revolt against the institutional church. No one can foretell just what will happen to the institutional church in the coming decade; but if it is to reclaim a place of substantial influence in society, it must come to grips with the fact that form without content has left many disillusioned and disinterested. They feel the Church has done little to meet their own personal needs or to deal with the problems of contemporary society. No doubt some who are essentially irreligious use the Church as a scapegoat for their rebellion against God, but there are others who affirm their sincere dedication to Christ and impatience with the Church in the same breath (e.g., Malcolm Muggeridge in Jesus Rediscovered, one of the most intriguing books of the past year).
This dissatisfaction with the Church will have a continuous effect upon book publishing. Institution-oriented books will give way to books dealing with the more personal side of religion and books that relate the Church and its message to the great social concerns of our day. In this connection it is interesting to note that some of Billy Graham’s books have been translated into thirty-eight languages and dialects, and sales of his works are many times those of other religious authors by the same publisher. Several factors may contribute to this success, but no doubt the most important is the common hunger of the human heart for some word on how to find a right relationship with God and with other men.
Rebellion against authority. This phenomenon is not confined to the Church, of course, but it has been strikingly evident there. Rebellion against church authority has been most apparent in the Catholic Church; however, the even more significant denial of the authority of Scripture is affecting Protestants as well as Catholics. In the past, most religious books at least made some claim to be based on Scripture, but this is no longer so. Many people, it seems—even those who call themselves Christians—are not greatly concerned about what the Bible (or the Church) has to say, especially if it conflicts with their own ideas. (However, Bibles continue to sell very well—it would be interesting to know just who’s buying them and who’s reading them, and why). The question of authority has provided material for many a book during the past year; but the subject is already at its saturation point. And increasing defiance of authority is going to work against publication success with books that can really be called “religious,” as that term has commonly been used.
Rejection of the transcendence of God. With the breakdown of biblical authority, it is not surprising that God himself has been called on the carpet to face the charge that he does not exist—at least not in the way the Church has generally defined his existence. The trend has been toward humanizing God and deifying man, a process that found its clearest expression for a time in the “death of God theology” but is also reflected in Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” the “secularization of Christianity,” humanistic existentialism, the worship of science, and even in much of the recent “theology of hope.” When God’s existence is questioned, or when he is divested of his deity by whatever theologian may be on center stage at the moment, religious publishers find slim pickings in their search for material. (A partial solution has been the use of the term religious to describe anything even remotely related to religion.) Some of these theological fads have sold many books, but publishers are still left with a shaky foundation on which to build their plans for the future.
Although evangelicals are unhappy with the institutional church, they want no part of any movement away from biblical authority or the transcendence of God. And publishers geared to the evangelical market find themselves in a more stable position than other religious publishers. Perhaps the most noteworthy development in evangelical circles is the increasing concern to relate the Gospel to social issues, a trend reflected in recent evangelical book lists.
But evangelical publishers are not without their problems, and perhaps the most disturbing is the apparent lack of evangelical readers for solid, meaty books. Although a number of very useful evangelical books appeared during the past year (see Choice Evangelical Books, page 21—a list limited at least partially by lack of space), many others are not worth the time it takes to read them. Among these are theologically shallow “inspirational” books that do not come to grips with either Scripture or the world, and sensational books on prophecy that do little or nothing to establish Christians in the faith and challenge them to action. The Christian should spend his time on books that will help him assimilate the Word of God and meet the sweeping challenges and opportunities of life in today’s world. A book diet that leaves out meaty instruction in the Scriptures will stunt the growth of faith, leaving it inactive and weak. Some evangelicals say with a certain pride that they “don’t know any theology,” and evangelicalism has at times reflected the shallowness that comes from such a lack. If some churchmen are in danger of sacrificing theology at the altar of unbelief under the pretense of being relevant, evangelicals must not be guilty of sacrificing both theology and relevance at the altar of apathy under the pretense of interest in more “spiritual” things.
Publishers will publish what people will buy. Evangelicals will probably continue to buy religious books in the coming decade. We hope they will request and read more and more books that are deeply rooted in biblical theology and relate that theology to the problems they will face in the seventies.
The Freedom To Destroy Freedom
During the recent seizure of the president’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the invaders followed the now established pattern of destroying property and making a general nuisance of themselves. Their ostensible purpose was to force MIT professors to stop using their considerable talents in the service of the federal government.
What struck us as important was that these students and non-students, claiming freedom to do their thing, were using that freedom to attempt to restrict the freedom of the university and its faculty members to do their thing. The inconsistency points straight back to the peculiar ethics of Marxism. The Communists say: “We demand freedom when you are in control, for that is your principle. We take away freedom when we are in control, for freedom is not our principle.” The outworking of this philosophy has been evident in Czechoslovakia and more recently in the suppression of writers in the Soviet Union.
Freedom is the trademark of democracy, which, in turn, is related to the Christian faith, from which true freedom springs. With Christianity rapidly losing its vitality, we have reason to fear that freedom will ultimately be a casualty as well.
The January Notes from the Foundation for Economic Education pointed out that inflation is a cruel and unjust tax. Few of us would disagree. But at the same time most of us are afflicted with cupidity. We want higher wages for less work; we want more government benefits and lower taxes; we condemn rising prices while we condone greater government expenditures. To put it simply, we want to have our cake and eat it too.
Do we ever learn from history, or are we bound to repeat endlessly the follies of earlier generations that paid dearly for economic ineptitude? How it is possible to spend ourselves into riches has never been explained—and never will be. It is a fairy tale for kiddies, of little value for adults in a real world.
Certain basic economic principles can be deduced from Scripture. One is that inflation is a form of theft. Another is that neighbor love is violated when those least able to protect themselves are victimized by the cruelties of inflation. Still another—one that is plainly stated—is that as men sow, so shall they reap. We are now reaping the economic plight we have sown, and there is no painless way to stop the process. A solution is going to be costly. Most of us give little evidence of being earnest enough about stopping inflation that we are ready to pay the price.
The Shape Of Collections To Come
Reflection on the recent speculation about religion in the seventies reveals what is surely a glaring omission. Someone, wethinks, should have forecast the demise in this decade of those typically round, felt-bottomed church offering plates. They are, after all, a bit anachronistic now that gifts come typically in rectangular checks, envelopes, or dollar bills instead of circular pieces of gold or silver. Relevant receptacles, it seems, would be similarly shaped, but even corners on collection baskets have had their day in church—on the ends of long poles passed by beadles.
Real relevance may have to coin a pay-as-you-pray plan like that of the Vermont church that now has in its vestibule a credit-card machine for contributions. “We’re moving into a credit-card age,” charges the pastor, “and there’s no reason the church should remain aloof.” And for the eighties, oracles envision computer centers that will simply deduct from the parishioner’s account his preplanned contribution and pass it into the account of the church of his choice.
What such procedures will mean to “the worship of tithes and offerings” is a question to ponder these long winter evenings. Could it be that giving will be cheerier unfolded, unspindled, and unmutilated?
Christ, Christians, And Christianity
A recent newsletter from the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship struck a responsive chord. On college campuses, says Inter-Varsity president John W. Alexander, “Christians lack vision and vitality. There appears to be little of anything going on in personal evangelism, in group evangelism, in campus prayer meetings or Bible study.” He goes on to speak of his concern for “the increasing lack of biblical awareness in United States Christians, their weakness in understanding scriptural truth—and in living it out to the full in their intellectual, social, and cultural aspects of life. Because of this many non-Christians are turned against Christianity—for they don’t see the image of Christ in those who profess his name.”
Alexander then quotes Lew Alcindor, famous Negro All America basketball player, who graduated from UCLA last year and said of his experience there: “… The Bible had no further meaning for me. The Bible and its teaching had produced all these hate-filled people.… It seemed to me that there was nothing in the world as unlike Christ as Christians.”
How dark the night, how great the sloth that has overtaken us! We are needy people who cannot give to others what we do not have ourselves. Shall we not pray: O God! Do it again! Come in mighty power.
The Lenten Season
February 15 is the first Sunday of Lent, a period long observed by Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as well as Anglican and some Lutheran churches. By and large the Protestant churches have not celebrated the whole season of Lent but have concentrated their attention on Holy Week.
In earlier times Lent was observed for forty days, in keeping with the temptation of Jesus. When Sundays were ruled out as fast days, the period of time was extended so that there were forty fast days in addition to the Sundays through Easter. The season was used not only for fasting but also for celebrating the rite of baptism of new believers (who had been instructed to engage in penance, of which fasting was a visible outward sign), and for considering the passion of Jesus Christ.
The custom of fasting seems to have been lost to most Christians, particularly in those countries where people have the most to eat and where abstaining from food would serve a useful physical function. Fasting has value as a way of turning attention from material to spiritual things and heightening the believer’s perception of God and of the still, small voice that speaks to man.
The attention of the world has been centered in Biafra, where it is apparent that millions of people have been fasting, not by choice but by grim necessity. The war is over but hunger still abounds. The sight of suffering children who—if they manage to survive—will be damaged for life by malnutrition should arouse our consciences and cause us to respond quickly. By foregoing one meal a day or even desserts for the Lenten period, we could gather millions of dollars to help these fellow human beings to whom our hearts go out in sympathy. Pick your relief agency and send your gift—now!
Church Property Rights
In America congregations have never had any problem withdrawing from their denominations, except when they wanted to take their church buildings with them. At that point, setting aside Paul’s prohibition against litigation between Christians (1 Cor. 6:1–8), the denomination has often gone to court to claim the property. Usually the central organization has acted in behalf of a minority of the congregation’s members that wished to stay loyal to the denomination.
Court decisions have been wildly inconsistent, even within states. Reversals of lower-court decisions often seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Historical affirmation of congregational polity have often not made much difference, as Baptist churches around the country have learned over the past few decades. What has mattered, and will even more in the light of a recent Supreme Court action, is who explicitly owns the property according to civil law.
Usually courts have not inquired into doctrinal matters to judge whether changes in the denomination generally permit a dissenting congregation to leave and take its building with it. Now the courts may not inquire into matters of ecclesiastical polity either. In the recent action, two Georgia congregations formerly with the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the U. S. had their property held by trustees. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld their claim to the property on the charge that the denomination had changed doctrinally. The U. S. Supreme Court, rightly, we believe, told the Georgia court that the constitution forbade it to claim competence in theological matters. So the Georgia court changed its basis for allowing the congregation to claim the property. If it lacked competence theologically, it said, it was also incapable of examining the ecclesiastical claims of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. that, according to presbyterian polity, an “implied trust” granted the property to the denomination in case the local trustees wanted to leave. The denomination again appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, which this time refused to hear the case, allowing the Georgia court decision to stand.
We applaud this decision in what may well be a landmark case. While it seems to hinge on a technicality, the principle is clear: Church property disputes are to be handled like any others; there is no “religious” property law. No claims regarding theology or church polity can be evaluated by the courts. Congregational attempts to keep property because the national body has changed are vain. Denominational claims to property on the basis of reversionary clauses should the congregation depart from “customary usages” are not likely to work.
Connectional denominations certainly will be affected by the action to the extent that the property is not fully owned by the central body itself, as was the case with the Georgia Presbyterians. Often the property is owned by the bishop or diocese or conference or presbytery. The Supreme Court’s action seems to indicate that if such a regional jurisdiction wished to dissociate from the national body it could take its property with it. Claims that, for example, Roman Catholic dioceses must act in accordance with papal wishes on such matters could not be entertained. Religious laws not only do not apply but cannot be examined by the courts.
One implication is clear: Congregations should be at least as scrupulous about their legal titles as they are about their fire insurance. One hopes that fire does not strike. Similarly, congregations that are presently happy about their denominational relationship hope that this continues indefinitely. But it may not.
Christian responsibility calls for setting one’s legal affairs in order. The documents that pertain to ownership of church property should be carefully reviewed, and all references to theological or ecclesiological matters, including statements of faith, should be so arranged that they bear no relation to ownership. If there ever is a dispute, the courts will disregard the religious elements anyway, so title to the property should be as independent of such considerations as fire insurance already is.
The Liars Among Us
Why all the credibility gaps? On what grounds can the public be deliberately deceived?
The principles of the so-called new morality suggest a way in which a public official can completely misrepresent a situation and still convince himself he has done well. All he has to do is be persuaded in his own mind that such fabrication will be in the best interests of the public.
To be sure, situation ethics has a built-in attractiveness. It is particularly easy in the social sector: who is to know what is ultimately good in the corporate sense? Virtually anything can be justified if one tries hard enough.
We wonder if the new morality hasn’t been making something of an impression upon politicians. A recent New York Times Book Review article asserts that there was “so much official lying” during the past decade that there is now a striking radical temper among the best young historians. The article declares that there is “more skepticism than ever of traditional academic perspectives on history.”
The free world must ask itself seriously whether it is going to surrender objective standards of right and wrong. To do so would be in effect to subordinate truth to political bias—as the Communists do. Such capitulation invites the wrath of God both in this world and the next.
Is Your God Too Big?
In certain ways most of us have too small a concept of God, but in other ways, we may think of him as too big. How is that?
Consider our leaders here on earth. We do not trouble them with small things; their time is reserved for the most important matters. It’s only natural, then, that this attitude be transferred to God. But this is just another way in which God is not like men. He is indeed far greater than we can imagine, but part of his greatness lies in his attention to the smallest detail. The Apostle Paul tells us we are to bring all our concerns to God, not just the big ones.
After commanding us to rejoice all the time in Philippians 4:4, Paul helpfully explains how this difficult command can be obeyed. He assures us that “the Lord is at hand” (v. 5), which means, as the context suggests, that he is accessible, not remote the way our leaders on earth are. Then in verse 6 Paul tells us that to rejoice always we are to be free of anxious concern; the two are mutually exclusive. Next he tells us what to do whenever anything appears to cause us anxiety: “… with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” How big must something be to be taken to God? No bigger than it must be to disrupt our joy! As we all know, trivial things have a way of causing considerable consternation: a traffic light turns red just as we get to it; the shopping list is missing just when we want it; the car breaks down just after we’ve had it repaired. We all have disturbances that are so minor we hesitate to mention them to others, but God wants us to bring them to him.
Whether a particular request is major or minor, an important adjunct is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving causes us to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness in the past, how he stood by us in previous difficulties, how they were eventually resolved or we were given grace to bear them. This is probably the key to the marvelous promise that follows the call to pray. “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). This constant peace, which permits the constant joy to which we are called, is not something we can easily explain; in fact, Paul says it passes understanding. But this doesn’t make it less real. Although most of us would have a hard time explaining light, we know it is available.
If we who are Christians do not enjoy peace and joy continually, then we should take stock of ourselves regarding the call to pray in everything. Perhaps we have been operating with too big a concept of God. Or rather, perhaps we do not realize that he is so big that he wants us to bring our little problems—and our little thanksgivings—to him just as surely as we bring the big ones.
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